Email to the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Sydney

Bust of Socrates. 2nd century Roman copy from a 4th century BCE Greek original. Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo, Italy

Bust of Socrates. 2nd century Roman copy from a 4th century BCE Greek original. Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo, Italy

Hello Professor Benitez,

Last semester my pursuit academically of a most profound influence on Western culture which I have focused on for the previous thirty two years came to an end, with my failure to complete and submit my Honours thesis on the mystic Hegel.

That focus, an obsession, has dominated my life at the expense of all else – it is what I have lived for.

I send you this email to explain why I failed to submit my thesis and in so doing to emphatically reject any shame associated with that failure, particularly after more than three decades of total commitment, and to raise with you an immeasurably greater failure by academic philosophers, a failure which I have struggled against for the entirety of that period at both this university and UNSW.

When I began my first degree in 1982 at the then City Art Institute (later named the College of Fine Arts, now UNSW Art & Design) I quickly came to see that there was something seriously lacking in the theory of art being taught, that it was superficial and incorrect.

I also believed that whatever it was that was missing from the tuition and literature pervaded Western culture and when recognised, would be the basis for an entire cultural re-reading, an honest re-reading.

I wrote a long essay which I titled ‘The Poverty of Art’ in which I attempted to work out what that influence was and serialised it in the student publication. The only response was when I was asked on one occasion by the editor what I thought of her reduction of the font size to such a degree that the text could not be read.

Since then this interest has become an obsession, one that has, until the decline of that stage of capitalist ideology known as postmodernism when a slowly increasing number of academics began looking for something ’new’, gone against the ideological grain – as an overt example, when I was in 3rd year Fine Arts at this university in 1988 my tutor warned me to stop writing as I was doing otherwise ‘they’ would come down on me. I went into the Honours year with that threat hanging over my head.

In 1992 I began a Masters by research thesis titled ’Neoplatonism and the Cubist Aesthetic’ at COFA. For three years, in breach of the regulations, the College failed to provide me with a supervisor. I was patronised with the appellation ‘autodidact’ and advised to read a beginner’s book on philosophy by an academic who I was told was an ‘expert’ on Plato, who refused to supervise me and who, on my asking him, admitted total ignorance of an entire subject area of a chapter in that book he recommended to me, by Danto – a chapter on neurophilosophy.

This was during the heyday of postmodernism – itself suffused with mysticism.

I went to the main campus of UNSW and also came to this university looking for supervision from academic philosophers or at least some support, someone who could help me.

On 08.01.93 I met with George Markus who didn’t like what I was saying regarding the impact of mysticism on Western culture and told me that he didn’t ‘support my project’.

On 05.04.93 I met with David Armstrong who kindly suggested that I ‘start at the beginning’. Both of them showed not the slightest awareness of the fundamental significance of mysticism in Western culture to the present.

I had similar experiences meeting with Philip Cam (30.11.92) and Peter Slezak (07.12.92) at UNSW. Slezak said he thought ‘we had finished with idealism’.

In 1998 you approved my attending your course on Plato and Aristotle (which I paid to do because my eventual supervisor at COFA would not authorise my attending the course). I did not submit my essay for it because my supervisor was putting increasing pressure on me to complete my thesis.

In your lecture on 05.03.98 you said ‘There are strains of mysticism in Plato’ and in your lecture on 12.03.98 you said that Plato tried to get under the language to the real things. At the end of that lecture I asked you “What can you say about the concepts of ‘contemplation’ and ‘intuition’ in regard to Platonism and Neoplatonism?” You replied ‘It is an awfully big question. It requires a long answer.’ You acknowledged that you did not know much about Neoplatonism.

Disgusted with my experiences at COFA over years, culminating in the refusal of my supervisor and his partner, the course co-ordinator, contrary to all the supporting evidence, to allow me to upgrade to a PhD, I left the course. After so many years, I was not prepared to do a partial thesis.

I wanted to give up on my vision because it had cost me so much but I could not – I had made significant headway in understanding what this influence was and is in Western culture and I have never lost sight of either its significance or potential.

As a way of resuming my commitment, I enrolled in courses at the Centre for Continuing Education and the WEA, particularly courses run by Kerry Sanders.

In those courses covering a wide range of philosophers, I argued for the influence of mysticism, particularly Neoplatonism, in Western culture and philosophy.

Not only did Sanders show not the slightest knowledge of Neoplatonism (in her University Preparation Course on the two dates allocated for her tuition of Neoplatonism she never even mentioned it), she spectacularly expressed the standard academic hostility to it in her class on 22.05.08 when, in quoting Derrida’s denial in response to a question regarding the influence of Neoplatonism on his philosophy, she added slowly, with emphasis, ‘you complete fuckwit’. In her class on 01.05.08 she had told the class that she had been Derrida’s water-bearer when he had come to Australia.

She pronounced the name of the greatest Western mystic Plotinus ‘Plotoneeus’ and when discussing Michelangelo in a class, she said ‘Plato stripped away vast amounts in pursuit of Form’ and that ‘Plotinus gave us an incorrect way of understanding what Plato was saying.’

Her thesis, done in your department and for which she was awarded a PhD was written in the shadow of Neoplatonism, yet it wasn’t even referenced in her bibliography. When I pointed this out to her she replied that she had not referred to Plotinus because ‘we didn’t know (of him)’.

Not only did I argue for the impact of Neoplatonism and mysticism on Western culture through the courses I did with her (in a class by Ray Younis I read out a statement to that effect), I had several discussions with her outside class on the matter.

I said to her that it is the most gross failure of intellectual and social responsibility that mysticism is not being taught (as distinct from advocated) by academics and that academics should be held to account for this failure.

She was the first academic to show real interest in what I had to say and I wanted her to teach it.

Sanders eventually said that I would be glad to know that she was going to teach it in her course on the Middle Ages and she asked me for my material on Neoplatonism. I replied that I would like support for what I had been trying to do since 1982. She looked shocked and said nothing in reply.

I had hoped that in return for what I was giving her – the basis for an entire cultural re-reading – to begin with, as postmodernism was going into clear decline (that decline she has raised in the outline for one of her recent courses), that she would give me the support I had never had, in return – both to do a PhD (she teaches at Sydney College of the Arts, the Centre for Continuing Education, the WEA and has taught at UNSW) and to teach it myself (I put proposals to both the CCE in 1999 and 2008 and to the WEA in 2009).

She refused, giving as her justification that I am intolerant of the views of others. This is not only a serious criticism personally but particularly so in relation to philosophy since it amounted to the implication that I cannot do philosophy, to which tolerance is fundamental. I asked her, from 162 hours of classtime and social experience to give me one instance.

This teacher of philosophy, of reason, critical thinking and the syllogism said she could not give me one instance.

How could one show greater intellectual tolerance than to be a materialist as I am and also argue for the immense and living significance of mysticism? It is a ‘tolerance’ which, historically, academics have utterly failed to show.

While Sanders refused to give me any support in Australia – to teach the impact of mysticism, to do a PhD on it (I had a BA from City Art Institute and a Fine Arts Honours BA from your university) or even to refer me to someone who might supervise me, she did volunteer to give me a ‘glowing’ reference towards doing a thesis overseas, which I have never asked her for nor applied to do.

I was becoming increasingly concerned that having given her (finally got her to recognise), whose erudition I acknowledged to her, the basis for an entire cultural re-reading and been given no assistance by her for what I wanted to do and had been trying to do since 1982 in return, that she was now teaching it, as indicated by her course outlines.

When I asked her about this, she denied it, finally refusing to even answer my question – on one occasion (11.05.14) the person who told me that she would always think of me as a friend even threatened to call security in Fisher library on me.

When I told her on 26.09.13 that I expect another B+ for my next essay she replied ‘Looks like you will be getting a 2nd class, which won’t be enough to go on with’ adding ‘Looks like your love affair with the University of Sydney is coming to an end.’ She offered me not the slightest support or assistance.

Obviously Sanders is free to support who she chooses, but I set this out as part of my experience in my commitment and efforts on this most important matter.

I engaged in an email exchange with Jason Riley at the CCE who authorises the courses taught there, to find out to what extent she was now teaching mysticism. On 29.08.14 I received a final reply from him in which he stated that he could not confirm the extent to which Sanders is/might be doing so.

My heart went into fibrillation and I went to see a doctor who told me to go straight to hospital, which I did.

The increasing stress with regard to Sanders, resulting in this fibrillation, was fundamental to why I did not submit my thesis.

On 20.11.14 I received a reply from Ann Brewer the CEO of the CCE in response to my enquiry regarding Sanders’ teaching mysticism – she replied simply, contrary to Sanders’ course outlines, that Sanders wasn’t teaching it. Again, my heart went into fibrillation.

I regard my failure to submit my thesis as not at all reflecting negatively on either my ability or commitment which has been, since 1982 total, but, ultimately, on Australian culture.

The marker for my essay for Professor Thom’s Philosophy of Music seminar wrote that my essay comprised ‘a hermeneutics of suspicion according to which Neo-Platonism is everywhere, despite the fact that all the powers of Western culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.’

The marker should make the time to at least look through the Contents lists of William Franke’s 2 vol. anthology On What Cannot be Said (there is no copy in Fisher) to be disabused of that criticism.

Professor Grumley, with regard to my arguing the impact of mysticism on Habermas has charged me with a lack of intellectual merit, for making simple assertions that I hold as convictions with regard to the role of mysticism in Western culture which I am not prepared to criticise in accordance with conventional critical standards.

Yet it was Habermas who wrote of the ‘great significance’ of an ‘element of Jakob Böhme’s mystical speculations’ (God’s seeing ‘Himself confirmed in His own freedom through an alter ego’ – which was ‘the subject of [his] doctoral dissertation’ and was also central [as Magee, to whom Professor Grumley referred me, argued] to Hegel’s mystical philosophy) for him, and my argument regarding the impact of mysticism on Habermas was consistent with that of two professors, one emeritus, from the University of Newcastle. If I have abandoned ‘conventional critical standards’, so have they.

I note that while these severe criticisms were being made of my work at one end of the university, the tuition of mysticism was now developing, apace, at the other – at the CCE (where it was never done until recently – my first proposal in 1999 was treated as a joke) and in a growing range of areas, with one of those courses (Jewish mysticism) being run by a Department of the University.

Mysticism is also now being taught at the WEA and at a growing number of Australian universities including the ANU, Monash, the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland.

Mysticism in modern Western culture has been treated like pornography, its dynamism and methods drawn upon in private while denied and appropriated in public as the achievements of patriarchal linguistic reason, in the name of an increasingly challenged Western supremacism.

In no area of Western culture does this dishonesty run more deeply than in philosophy.

In 2009 I sent an email to academics at several Australian universities asking if they teach Neoplatonism in their courses.

Paul Crittenden at the University of Sydney replied ‘its a rather neglected field I’m afraid in current philosophy’. David Runia at the University of Melbourne replied ’Nowhere is this subject very strong in Australia.’ Harold Tarrant at the University of Newcastle replied ‘There have never in recent times been U/G courses taught that are devoted to that subject’. You replied ‘I’m sorry to say that Neoplatonism isn’t taught in my department.’ Damian Grace at UNSW replied ‘Historical neo-platonism doesn’t get much attention’. Carole Cusack at the University of Sydney replied ‘there is little demand for such an obscure subject among undergraduates’. I received replies in a similar vein from others.

It is not I who am remiss, it is the Department of Philosophy, and I charge the department with maintaining the most gross failure of intellectual and social responsibility in not teaching mysticism, the influence of which runs right through Western culture at the deepest level, and in not teaching the philosophy that was developed from it – dialectical materialism – the epistemology, itself requiring continual development, of modern science.

To blame undergraduate students for a lack of demand for the subject is emblematic of the degree of academic failure of which I process.

While not a Marxist, I assert that bourgeois philosophy is an increasing impediment to the requirements of scientific and social development.

A prognostication: much sooner than later, mysticism will be taught in your department – I notice that an image for Hypatia is in this year’s student guide – first a toe, then the foot?

I will complete my thesis and put it on the web.

Sincerely,

Philip Stanfield

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11 thoughts on “Email to the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Sydney

      • When I returned to the classroom as an adult Phil, I quickly learnt not to question some of my lecturers & their personal likes or dislikes of individual students reflected in their evaluation of the students submissions. I found women particularly biased & learnt quickly how to manipulate them – I achieved distinctions in all my subjects. Right or wrong it’s the way it is until the EDU system engages in Robotic teachers.

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      • Hi Kristin,
        Some believe that philosophy is finished, others fear its end. Socrates modelled why the beliefs of the former are incorrect and the fears of the latter unjustified by posing the best and most disruptive questions.
        Phil

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Perhaps an honest and open inquiry is not possible in our institutions – “academics” are split between furthering what to teach and “teaching”. How far can we get with that?!

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    • Hi Tach,
      I hold not the least hope for ‘an honest and open inquiry’ by the University of Sydney.

      On the one (theoretical) hand universities in secular capitalist societies lay claim to be the upholders of the highest values of their society, on the other (practical) hand they are open to being exposed not only as increasingly structured on ‘the (corrupt) business model’ which has been so much in the media of late (which reporting also reinforces a comfortable Australian racism going back to the time of the gold-rushes) but as the key centres of bourgeois ideology, which must never lose absolute control of the dissemination of ideology (‘a system of belief delimited by interests’ [Morawski]).

      My efforts over 32 years both at City Art Institute/COFA/UNSW Art & Design (all the same place) and the University of Sydney have exposed not only a profound lie in Western self-perception and projection (that ‘we’ are the bearers of ‘reason’) but also the degree of time-serving going on in Western universities – an ancient flaw that the ideologues are now gingerly moving, with the decline of pomo (itself suffused with mysticism), to paper over as they become instant experts on what they would never touch with a barge-pole up until only a few years ago.

      The dynamism of mysticism is a very hot potato for them, both because of the degree of dishonesty with which mysticism has been treated, particularly by Western academics, and because that very dynamism (carried over by Marx, which he acknowledged, into dialectical materialism) clearly implies what the beloved Platonic stasis denies – everything, including capitalism, passes.
      Phil

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Phil,
        Everything does pass, and humanity itself may as we hold to our own against others. The alienation one encounters in holding to one’s truth reinforces the passion that alienates. Yet we cannot compromise, is the nature of our truth.

        Perhaps it is the condition of skepticism, of our certainty of existence in that thinking as Descartes would conclude, that we can only agree to disagree – but this is in our minds.

        That is our isolating end when we are seemingly all human beings – but this is in our minds where we can think we see when the whole body has the eyes and generates vision, think that we “have” a human body when we are a part of a whole human being and body (of whom our projected reality is a part – I’m hoping you’ve noticed the emphasis i have tried to introduce that the whole body includes both the solid body and projection, both in real space, thanks to you!)

        Our true commonality is the mystery. In tending to be an isolated part of a living whole being as an identity identified with its experience, notions and sense, in our actuality and existence as a part of a whole being, and the whole we are a part of who is of reality and creation.

        How can we incorporate or induce this universality to our mind and in our institutions? Can we in our identity be reached by reality? I noticed a gender slant and the playing the game for a good mark in your previous comment. Can we reach a humanity beyond gender and agenda?
        Tach

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      • Hi Tach,
        could you expand on ‘I noticed a gender slant and the playing the game for a good mark in your previous comment’? I don’t know what you are referring to. With thanks, Phil

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    • Hi Tach,
      I couldn’t understand what you were referring to because comments can appear in a different order in my editable Comments section to how they may appear under the post. It’s very frustrating because it also can be confusing for people reading the comments beneath the post itself. I will discuss this with WordPress to see if I can fix this.
      Best wishes, Phil

      Like

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